Literature and Film: Utilizing the Male Gaze in Analyzing Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient” As author Barbara Tepa Lupack (1999, 1) contends, Hollywood has historically turned to literature for its story ideas. And women’s fiction has not disappointed, providing some of the most interesting, as well as some of the best, sources for Hollywood fare. Fiction by American women has both afforded insights into American society and character and provided producers and directors with a wealth of filmable material (Lupack 1).
Through the years, some of Hollywood’s most profitable films have been based on novels by American women, i.e. Gone with the Wind (1939) based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel (1936) of the Old South, which despite the author’s insistence that it was not mean to mirror the Depression or other topical events, both book and film gripped the American public’s popular imagination who, in the aftermath of one world war and in the opening years of another, recall with nostalgia more genteel days and “a Civilization gone with the wind.”However, many of these memorable films adapted from novels by American women, like so much of classical and dominant Hollywood cinema, tend to ‘stereotype or otherwise misrepresent women and thereby to minimize their credibility’ (Lupack, 5).
As Marjorie Rosen (as cited by Lupack, 7) puts it, movies being ‘a form of popular culture that altered the way women looked at the world and reflected how men intended to keep it,’ the movie mills of Hollywood created ‘a Cinema Woman who has been a Popcorn Venus, a delectable but insubstantial hybrid of cultural distractions’ (Erens 19).Such a view is shared by Molly Haskell, whose pioneering study From Reverence to Rape, documented the treatment of women on film and concluded that Hollywood has ‘typically presented negative views of women’ (Lupack 6) in such a way that they are relegated to poor role models, if not glamorous, unattainable ones. Female film characters are thus defined in relation to their sexuality – by its excess, i.e.
the vamp, the sex goddess, or the femme fatale, or its absence (the virgin, the spinster, the mother).Haskell adds that movies brought into the big screen what the terms women as a sex have been referred to over the years. It does come as no surprise that cinema brought forth images of the female ‘disparate from women’s actual lives’ (Lupack 7) – limited, stereotyped and demeaning.Sharon Smith (1972, 13) adds that ‘women, in any fully human form, have been almost completely left out of film… from its very beginning they were present, but not in characterizations any self-respecting person could identify with’ (Gledhill, Re-vision 19).
This status of ‘limited visibility’ so to speak becomes more glaring when one considers the representation of minority women in film, who are continually boxed in stereotypical roles – whores, seducers, Amazons and matriarchs, martyr wives, exotics, and tragic mulattoes.More recent studies by feminists and feminist film critics decry the ‘sexual spectacle’ which appears to be inherent in much of Hollywood cinema, wherein the female is merely a ‘passive object of desire, on display for male approval and erotic gratification’ (Lupack 8). Laura Mulvey, drawing from the works of Freud and Lacan, examines the psychoanalytic concept of pleasure in “looking,” relating this particular kind of look or “gaze” to the cinematic pleasures churned out by Hollywood as directed at a hypothetical male viewer for gratification of male anxieties and desires (Lupack 8).The female figure on screen is relegated to the status of an “object” to be looked upon, in a spectator-text relationship.
A similar view is espoused by Claire Johnston, who finds the image of woman in male cinema to be “a spectacle… presented as what she represents for man” (Erens 135-136), ultimately signifying the absence of a phallus.In a similar vein, Bell Hooks describes “the oppositional gaze” black women have had to adopt in countering cinematic racism, as “black female spectators have had to develop looking relations within a cinematic context that constructs their presence as an ‘absence,’ than denies the ‘body’ of the black females so as to perpetuate white supremacy and with it a phallocentric spectatorship” (118).Still other critics question the ideological function of film as a narrative, together with the existence of a feminine aesthetic, i.e.
a specific language of woman’s cinema that can effectively articulate, analyze, and reformulate the social construction of gender, subjectivity, as well as relations of representation to experience.Such concerns on how women are depicted and their deplorable experiences persist, even as filmmakers attempt to confront these issues in various ways, particularly for those who want to adapt contemporary American fiction by women to the silver screen.A primary concern is the establishment of an appropriate cinematic voice for the female characters, as some have decried how often the woman’s point of view is misinterpreted, if not all-together altered to a more neutral, masculine point of view when a novel is adapted to film – the woman is “gagged, mute” (Mulvey).This downplaying and/or disregard for the woman’s point of view is often just one of the casualties in the process of adaptation.
Filmmakers, in making their films more appealing to the general public often downplay the subtleties of the original literary works, calling instead upon formulaic conventions to evoke certain audience emotions (Lupack 15).Still another method for filmmakers to make adapted novels more ‘cinematic’ is through compressing significant plot events, as well as downplaying controversial topics in order to reinforce (both in implicit and explicit ways) traditional values (Lupack 18-19). Thus lesbianism, which is often integral to the novels in which such relationships occur, is dealt with obliquely on screen.Annette Kuhn offers a plausible explanation – classical Hollywood cinema utilizes narratives revolving heterosexual romance, and ‘when the occasional lesbian character, image or relationship is offered, it is usually in the form of a problem to the heterosexual ‘equilibrium’ which the narrative seeks to restore… lesbians are further marginalized by the fact that their sexuality is rarely named’ (Women’s Companion 244).
The repression of women’s voices, attempts at ‘cinematizing’ subtle details and significant moments, adding gratuitous and often sexual scenes lacking in the original fiction, compression of important plot events, downplaying of controversial topics, and the ‘structured ambiguity’ (Lesage 144) built into the film alters the screen adaptation from the original literary source.These adaptations are thus burden by limitations, yet nonetheless as Lupack (1999) maintains, they are valid and important art forms offering tremendous opportunities in terms of providing a more accessible venue to reach out to a wider audience, and of enriching the general viewers’ understanding of both media – the literary and film genres.Adapting fiction to film is not necessarily destructive, though it does have its downsides, but rather could also be viewed as ‘instructive’ – highlighting ‘the extraordinary complexity of that transaction between viewer and film’ (Boyum 55). The film can sometimes be even more satisfying than the novel (Merritt 1993), for as a ‘kind of pan-art’ (Sontag 245) film adaptations can create effects literature is incapable of producing: rapid images, profusion of detail in a single instant, highlighting the ‘spatial’ aspects of time in a sense of moving through time through moving through space, among others (Lupack 24).
A critical examination in detail of the extent to which filmmakers adapt, retain, alter or vanquish the feminist content of the fiction upon which their films are based offers one a way of ‘looking back, seeing with fresh eyes, entering an old text from a new critical direction’ (Griffith 25). And it is this tool which the author shall employ in analyzing Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient” in the succeeding pages.The screen adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel has some radical departures from its literary origin, as it has been ‘cinematized’ to appeal to the general audience – the love affair between Almasy and Katharine is emphasized. Interesting are the themes one could gleam from watching the film, including that of nationality: Almasy is introduced as ‘the English patient’ yet he in fact, is not.
It is later revealed that he is Hungarian by birth, ‘an international bastard’ who spent much of his adult life in the world’s deserts.He and his team of surveyors pride themselves on a friendship which transcends international borders, yet war comes in to divide and ultimately ruin their lives. One of the most touching scenes of the movie is the death of Katherine at the cave, wherein her last words were “I know you’ll come and carry me out into the palace of winds. That’s all I’ve wanted.
To walk in such a place with you. With friends. An earth without maps.” Thus her last wish is to be free of boundaries, both moral and emotional, shrouded in a metaphor of geographical boundaries.
In true Hollywood fashion, sexuality is not relegated to the sidelines, and the female body is once again laid bare for the male gaze to take in. Katherine betrays her husband and sleeps with Almasy, who eventually demands ownership of Katherine’s body. This claim over her is initially merely teasing – he explores her body in her nakedness, “I claim this… I want this!” Later on, in true dramatic fashion, he would insist in owning her – “I want to touch you, I want the things which are mine, which belong to me.” The woman is once again treated as an object for the pleasures of man.
Katherine, in having an affair with Almasy, thus projects into the big screen the image of the woman as the adulteress who forsakes her wedding vows and turns her back on her family. Her death can be viewed as a fitting punishment for her infidelity to her husband Geoffrey who kills himself by crashing the plane in the hopes if killing Almasy.The film assumes a moralist tone in relaying the message that the ‘wicked’ could not go on unpunished, for she could not hope to continue ‘living in sin’ so to speak with her adulterous relationship with Almasy, regardless of her confessions of love: After ending the affair and later on after Geoffrey’s death, Almasy tells her, “You’re wearing the thimble.” And she replies, “Of course you idiot.
I always wear it. I’ve always worn it. I’ve always loved you.”Moreover, the sexual bias is explicit.
Many of Almasy’s actions are deplorable – he is a liar, and a traitor to boot who seduced the wife of someone who considered him a friend. Yet he is able to escape condemnation, with his knowledge, charm and adherence to his own system of values highlighted as strong masculine traits necessary for survival instead of flaws in his character.Love, and the various facets of its tragedy, is also played out in the movie, sugar-coated for viewers – heart-felt love is capable of transcending time and space. The character of Hana – a representation of woman as weak, who clings instead to religion – is torn between adolescence and adulthood, and finds her self pinning after a father who has long died in another war.
Almasy’s love (and possibly obsession) with Katherine spurs him on wander across the desert seeking help for her in her sorry condition. In a similar vein, Kip leaves Italy to marry in India yet he cannot get over Hana and thirteen years later he still thinks of her halfway across the globe.These notions of romantic love i.e.
that of transcending even death as the characters hold on to their love even after death, are highlighted as the formula of love, sex and violence has proven to be a profitable combination at the box office. Moreover, the overwhelming tone of the movie is a masculine one. Whatever subtle feminine voices the author had originally included in the literary work has been muted – it is a man’s story in a time of war, with no obviously sound happy ending for its female characters. Female stereotypes are also reinforced in the movie – the weaknesses of women are highlighted while the male characters ultimately emerge as having the better end of the bargain.
In utilizing the method of‘re-vision’, one becomes more sensitized to the messages of the film, both implicit and explicit. More importantly, it allows the viewer to be more critical in its assessment of how the movie has responded to the feminist messages of the original literary work. Specifically, applying the concept of the “male gaze” makes one more aware of the realities of living in a patriarchal society and how this is carried over to the silver screen, reflecting long-standing dominant norms, values, traditions and consciousness shaped by social structures and institutions which seeks to maintain the status quo.It sensitizes one to the subtle use of images and popular media as ideological tools which has allowed the subordination and relegation of women to the sidelines as ‘second-class’ citizens for centuries.
In this manner, one could aim to be critical about this glaring inequality and injustice amidst the on-going struggle for women empowerment, and applying this manner of analysis would indeed go a long way as a first step to correcting what is now increasingly recognized as a serious flaw in society.;;;;;;;;;Works Cited;Boyum, Joy Gould. Double Exposure: Fiction into Film. New York: Universe Books, 1985.
Erens, Patricia, ed. Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film. New York: Horizon, 1979.;Gledhill, Christine.
“Developments in Film Criticism.” Re-vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams.
Frederick, MD: American Film Institute – University Publications of America, 1984. 18-48.;Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies.
London: New English Library, 1974.;Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
;Lesage, Julia. “Feminist Film Criticism: Theory and Practice.” Erens 144-55.;Lupa, Barbara Tepa.
Nineteenth-Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film. New York: Bowling Green State Univ. Popular Press, 1999.;Merritt, Russell and J.
B. Kaufman. Disney in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney. La GIornate Del Cinema Muto; distributed by Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
;Rosen, Marjorie. “Popcorn Venus or How the Movies Have Made Women Smaller than Life.” Erens 19-30.;Smith, Sharon.
“The Image of Women in Film: Some Suggestions for Future Research.” Women and Film 1 (1972): 13.;Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays.
New York: Farrar, 1966.;